I’m Scott Jennings, and I approve this political nerd’s dive into Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race between Mitch McConnell and Alison Grimes:
1. Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race was the most expensive campaign in state history. At least $84 million was spent by candidates and outside groups across the primary and general election. In 2008, McConnell and opponent Bruce Lunsford spent a paltry $38 million.
2. McConnell won more votes in both his primary and general election victories than Rand Paul in 2010. McConnell won 213,753 votes in his primary win over Matt Bevin, 6,767 more than Paul in his win over Trey Grayson. In the general election, McConnell won 806,015 votes, 50,799 more than Paul did in beating Jack Conway.
3. Bevin does not have a future as a psychic. A February article in Politico opened: “Matt Bevin, the tea party primary challenger…charged Monday that McConnell can’t win a general election.” Bevin, who lost to McConnell by 25 points, might have better luck betting on cockfights instead of handicapping Kentucky general elections. Bevin’s failure to endorse McConnell will haunt him for the rest of his political life, especially since he had a clear and public way to do so at an event with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal on October 29.
4. McConnell is impervious to presidential atmospherics. During McConnell’s last two races, the approval rating of the President of the United States was in the mid-30’s. McConnell soared past George W. Bush and Barack Obama in both.
5. Speaking of presidents, the Clintons did not help Alison Grimes and may have hurt her. This election finally puts out to pasture the myth that Kentucky is “Clinton country,” as Grimes bellowed time and again, or that claiming status as a “Clinton Democrat” brainwashes people into believing you have different views than the left-wing ideologues who dominate the national Democratic Party.
In 2014, Bill and Hillary Clinton’s 11 events did not help Grimes improve over Lunsford’s percentage in any county where they appeared: Jefferson (+0); Boone (-2.1); Fayette (-2.1); Daviess (-6.8); McCracken (-8.3); and Perry (-16.8). In Louisville, where the Clintons did three events, Grimes’s margin of victory was 4,256 votes less than Lunsford’s.
6. Not since Senator Wendell Ford in 1992 has a Democrat running for federal statewide office in Kentucky earned more than 50% of the vote. Other than Ford, and including Clinton’s wins in 1992 and 1996, Democrats running for U.S. Senate or President in Kentucky have averaged 43 percent of the vote since 1992. Grimes and her allies spent at least $25 million underperforming that by 2.3 points. Grimes might have done as well if she had spent nothing at all, although she wouldn’t have Ben Affleck’s phone number to show for it.
7. McConnell exceled with female voters. Despite making outrageous claims like McConnell is trying to “push women down” or that he is “constantly putting women at the back of the line,” Grimes lost women by three points (50-47), as they cared not for her irresponsible flailing in the fake “War on Women.”
8. Once a reliable stronghold for Democrats, Appalachia has turned its back on Obama’s Democratic Party. McConnell won Pike, Knott, Breathitt, Floyd, and Powell Counties, all Eastern Kentucky counties he had never carried. McConnell also won the Democratic stronghold of Magoffin County by 18 points, where Democrats make up 71 percent of registered voters. Exit polls found McConnell’s best region was Eastern Kentucky (63 percent).
9. National Democratic outside groups made disastrous bets on Grimes in October. The Senate Majority PAC, which is Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid’s super PAC, had pulled out of Kentucky by October 1. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee stopped running ads for Grimes with three weeks to go. Then, inexplicably, both groups came back in for the final 10 days, wasting $2 million more on a race that was not close. Democratic outside groups spent at least $9.18 million in a failed effort to topple McConnell.
10. McConnell had a better ground game. Exit polling showed that 47 percent of voters had been contacted by McConnell’s campaign (66 percent of those voted for him), but just 41 percent said the same of Grimes (only 45 percent of those actually voted for her). McConnell’s ground game was more robust and apparently featured more precise voter targeting.
11. Conventional wisdom on Mitch McConnell being unpopular was dead wrong. “…in Kentucky, the only politician more unpopular than Mitch McConnell is Barack Obama,” wrote one veteran reporter on November 3. The next day, Election Day, exit polls found that 49 percent of voters viewed McConnell favorably as he racked up 56 percent of the vote. Grimes, by contrast, was viewed favorably by just 40 percent of voters versus 57 percent who viewed her unfavorably (a massive 17 points underwater). In fact, the only politician in Kentucky whose unpopularity rivals Obama’s is Grimes herself. Her unsteady, evasive performance left a bad impression and raises questions about future political viability.
For years the Kentucky press has reported confidently that voters can’t stand McConnell. For a guy everyone supposedly hates, McConnell sure wins a lot of elections.
Scott Jennings is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations and a former advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. Jennings advised a pro-McConnell Super PAC during the 2014 election.